Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To War

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To War

In the second season of Starz’ American Gods TV series, the motley deities and celestial beings dotting the landscape of the United States are getting ready for war. It’s a conflict that will change what we know about them and how Shadow and the show’s other characters perceive themselves.

Last year, at a set visit attended by io9 and other media outlets, the cast and crew of American Gods convened in Toronto, eager to talk about how their metaphorical existences would twist and evolve. American Gods creator Neil Gaiman was in attendance, along with most of the returning cast. Over two days of shooting and production, I saw scenes that got me excited for what might happen during season two. A god of the afterlife contemplated an alliance with avatars of trickery and lust who hailed from the same continent. Embodiments of modern-day obsessions verbally sparred with each other. Old and New geared up for battle, with humanity’s faith hanging in the balance.

Faith and belief are what powers the gods on the series and season one ended with main character Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) learning the true nature of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), which is that he’s the Norse god-king Odin.

“First season, his big struggle was, is he losing his mind?” Whittle said. “Was he going insane? He didn’t know if things were real or false, and that was his big worry. Now he knows it is real.” Whittle’s already said that Shadow’s new awareness changes the dynamic between him and Wednesday. And McShane says that Shadow is right to wonder about the man who hired him.

American Gods, it’s more of a comment on life, like, people’s old superstitions,” McShane said, connecting his character Mr. Wednesday to older traditions. “If Wednesday, every time, could just do something, he would do it. But he can’t. It’s not Harry Potter time. But he’s got that kind of a character, just as self-serving and as irresponsible as the gods he’s trying to replace. Except he’d have a better time. He’d have more fun. He’ll take you to a better restaurant. He’ll tell better stories. You’ll have a better view on life. And people.”

Wednesday’s mix of scheming, impulse, and indignation will make it hard for Shadow to trust him. But Shadow’s going to be questioning everything on this magical layer of reality, including the not-dead existence of his former wife, Laura.

“He was infatuated with Laura but the tables have very much turned there,” Whittle observed. “She never really lived until she died. And now she’s in love and…does she really love Shadow? Or does she want something she can’t have, because Shadow’s just told her he’s not her puppy anymore?” For her part, the woman who plays Laura Moon agrees that the dynamic between Shadow and Laura is going to be more lively.

“She is more human now that she’s dead,” Emily Browning remarked. “I think she was obviously attracted to Shadow when she was alive before but she was numb, switched-off, and just kind of going through the motions. Now she has a real goal to kind of get back to him but, I do think that there is something in her that only wants something as long as she can’t have it.”

Meanwhile, the man that Laura has been spending time with—vulgar leprechaun screw-up Mad Sweeney—has wants of his own. “Even though he’s a fucking shit and people can’t generally stand to be around him, he has this very interesting and real moral code that he lives by,” Pablo Schreiber said of the character he plays. Sweeney’s lived a life of bartering for centuries and has had to deal with a lot of consequences. When he’s not able to live up to that code, it haunts him. Some of his shame stems from killing Laura Moon on Wednesday’s behalf, but Schreiber said there are deeper motivations roiling inside the unlucky leprechaun.

“His driving force is the desire to die in battle in an honorable way, to make up for this past guilt he’s been carrying for so long,” Schreiber elaborated. And with war on the way, Sweeney might just get his wish.

The being leading the faction on the other side of the impending conflict doesn’t even want to fight, though. “I actually don’t want a war; I want them to all work with me,” said Crispin Glover when asked about what his character Mr. World wants. “The conflict is that they don’t necessarily want to do that.” Glover hadn’t read Gaiman’s 2001 novel before his work on the first season but he did before coming back for season two. In his view, Mr. World is the ultimate assimilationist and he’s upset that war is on the horizon. “My purpose is to aggregate everybody but I’m forced into [fighting],” Glover said.

Of the New Gods being marshalled by Glover’s Mr. World, Bruce Langley says the character he plays, Technical Boy, seems the most ill-suited for actual conflict. “Things are revving up and there’s not a lot of room for a petulant ego in that,” Langley said about Technical Boy. Experiencing real conflict that you can’t solve through a phone is something that the socially maladroit digital deity won’t be good at.

[Editor’s Note: Mild spoilers follow for an upcoming episode of American Gods.]

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To War

When I visited the studio, I watched two scenes being filmed for episode four, directed by Stacie Passon and written by Peter Calloway and Aditi Brennan Kapil. One of them happened in the Blackbriar Bunker, a lair underneath a golf course festooned with old computer banks and terminal screens that looked like leftovers from NORAD. Production designer Rory Cheyne said that Mr. World’s base of operations pays “a bit of homage to Dr. Strangelove” and acts as a window to the outside where Mr. World can surveil anything he wants. Technical Boy will be hanging out there, too, and Langley said it’s not a fun place for him.

“Being in this Cold War-era bunker…ugh…it’s painful,” Langley said. “It’s worse than being in a void. Worse than that for him. In terms of the relationship between World and Tech Boy, he’s a tool. He’s something that can be used to effect, whether or not he realises it. One thing World can do exponentially better than Tech Boy is see the wider picture and things that may-or-may-not happen in the future and incorporate those into an idea.”

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To WarNew Media (Kahyun Kim) hangs out in the Blackbriar bunker. (Photo: Starz)

In the Blackbriar scene I saw, Technical Boy welcomed New Media (an evolution of Media, now played by Kahyun Kim) to her reincarnated existence in his typical rude way. When she asks him if he was there when she died, he says, “Don’t be so aggressively dense…she didn’t die, she changed into you.” New Media, responds with “I still feel her inside me. I wonder if the next version of me will feel me inside her. And then the next version will feel all of us. Don’t you wonder about this stuff?”

The other scene I saw centered around Ibis (Demore Barnes) warmly welcoming Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) into the parlor of his funeral home, but the pair get interrupted by Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones). The encounter is cordial at first, but Mr. Nancy gets heated as he tries to rally them to the Old Gods’ side in the coming conflict. Nancy tells Ibis that he’s one of them, a survivor of older cultures, but Ibis demurs and says he chooses peace.

From there, Nancy launches into a fiery soliloquy about the hypocrisy African-Americans live under and how they, as African gods, should be fighting against the realities of modern-day America. It’s a moment that burns with at least as much heat as Jones’ unforgettable entrance on a slave ship in season one, and it was breathtaking to watch Jones run through the same dialogue with renewed intensity for multiple takes.

When Jones spoke to reporters, he said the truth-telling aspect of Nancy’s trickster-god persona is deeply important to him. “I see Nancy as an advocate for the disenfranchised, and someone who sees the disenfranchised through himself, because he was born into a disenfranchised position,” he began. “Look, I think it is time for us to stop separating these issues and saying that they’re different things,” Jones went on. “When you look at global warming, human trafficking, mass incarceration, women’s rights, slavery, human rights, civil rights, we’re all really having the same conversation because those things disproportionately affect people of colour. We get the short end of all the sticks.”

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To WarIbis, Bilquis, and Mr. Nancy meet in the funeral home where the storytelling death god works. (Photo: Starz)

Jones then gave his interpretation of the scene we saw, focusing on the fact that Ibis is a death god who would likely feel averse to direct involvement.

For [Nancy], it’s very much about spinning those tales and stories. Ultimately, in the scene that we shot, he’s arguing with death. Death doesn’t give a shit. Any dead body will do. So, you’re trying to get death to care about things that death doesn’t care about. You need to attach a story to the dead bodies to feel some level of empathy for them. And hopefully, get [Ibis] to engage in a war which might save them.

Jones sees the metaphorical power of the scene as part of what makes American Gods so special. “Playing with the storyline of the things that resonate today, but in this context that is purely American Gods—where the drive of the characters is entirely specific and very clear—is a very fun way to talk about these issues. I think it takes some of the onus off of the conversation, and allows you to, hopefully, absorb the truth of where we are and what they are.”

Jones isn’t the only character who thinks about American Gods’ naked symbolism, either. “What I love about the show is it tackles a lot of relevant issues,” said Yetide Badaki, who plays celestial seductress Bilquis. “What is it to be a woman of colour, owning one’s power? Who responds positively to that, and who allies with that? And who may find that threatening? We’re seeing all these little elements come in.” Badaki says that, as someone with connections to both Old and New God factions, Bilquis is uniquely positioned amongst the cast. “She’s been hearing two sides of this from people who are polarising you in order to get you to do what they want,” Badaki explained. “And she’s saying, no, I don’t want your side, Mr. Wednesday, and I don’t want your side, Mr. World.”

Reflecting on the scene she shot with Barnes and Jones, Badaki says that Ibis and Bilquis are very similar as they’re both more peaceful. “We don’t want to be on either side of this thing,” she said. As a love goddess, Bilquis doesn’t want aggressive conflict. “And so, she says ‘there’s another way…you can evolve’,” Badaki elaborated. “That’s a different choice, you know? It’s not old versus new, those two things can come together. They can coalesce and become something that’s for the benefit of all.”

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To WarIbis, played by Demore Barnes, faces off against another god on a smaller battlefield. (Photo: Starz)

Demore Barnes said that season two will find Ibis making a change from season one, where he was facilitatory of other’s stories. “What we’re going to see a shift in is understanding more of his story,” Barnes said. “Where he came from, his desires and the things that make him tick all come into play. We’ll get to see him navigate the politics of interacting with Wednesday and I will be having significant interactions with Shadow in season two.” Shadow will be working with Ibis in his funeral home, which is in Cairo, a Midwestern town where pivotal events happen in the novel. The town will be equally important in season two, said Barnes. “The various personalities that are on their respective roads will, in some form, meet there,” he teased.

Two of those personalities—would-be salesman Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the mysterious Djinn (Moussa Kraish)—have the most sexual relationship in American Gods. “Sex is connected to something spiritual for so many people, from the dawn of time. People believed that orgasmic release was the closest thing you could get to God,” Kraish said.

In an infectious back-and-forth that showed they are old friends, the two actors held forth and said that their characters’ fates will still be intertwined in thorny ways:

Abtahi: Look, we had one very special night together. To further our relationship and take it to the next step it’s not going to be storybook-easy.

Kraish: It’s going to be struggle. As it should be, when you get to know somebody. Everyone in the world who has had an amazing one night stand has been filled with lust and going, “I wonder what…” I think Salim is in the “I wonder what…” stage.

Abtahi: And for anyone who’s been in a beautiful relationship, you know how much hard work that is. For two people to try and move forward as one, there’s no perfect match.

Kraish: It’s not going to be easy. If this was going to be easy, we would’ve just left that hotel room, held hands, and skipped down the street. But no, life kicks in, even for gods.

When it comes to the Salim/Djinn storyline, Neil Gaiman himself has a very specific endpoint in mind. “This cannot end tragically,” Gaiman said to me last June. “You know, we have an Islamic couple, they’re brown, and they’re in love. They can have the ups and downs of any couple but this one has got to be healthy. I’m not saying that everything will always be good for them, but I am very tired of gay [trauma].”

Neil Gaiman And The Cast Of American Gods Talk About Belief, Happy Endings, And Going To WarSalim (Omid Abtahi) and the Djinn (Moussa Kraish) will have some drama after their steamy first encounter in season one. (Photo: Starz)

Kraish confirmed that this has been a goal of the show from the very start with former showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. “It’s what Bryan and Michael were really pushing for,” he said. “They would say ‘This isn’t going to be the type of show where one gay man is going to die tragically.’ And Neil kind of put that out there again. Yesterday, he said, ‘These two characters are going to have a happy ending.’ It might be a rough road to get there. But this isn’t going to be the show where it has the stereotypical trope of ‘Let’s kill a gay man’, or, ‘Let’s kill a brown man’, ‘Let’s kill a minority on our show.’ ”

On set, Gaiman spoke frankly about the changes that have swirled around the show based on his beloved 2001 novel. “The strangest thing about season one of American Gods was everybody learning,” he offered. “You learn what you’re making and how to do it while you’re making it. And on this [season], [former showrunner] Jesse [Alexander] and the writers had to, again, learn what they’re making as they’re making it. So it’s a process of course correction. It’s a process of building. It’s a process of going ‘actually, we don’t want to lose anything’ especially anything we loved.“ [Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, Alexander had not yet parted ways with American Gods.]

“In a perfect world, Bryan and Michael would not have left,” Gaiman continued. “The best thing that we’ve had from Bryan and Michael may have been the actors. Because they know their characters better than anyone. Getting to trust them and watching the amount that someone like Orlando does…Orlando’s like, if he feels someone hasn’t got an answer, he’s there. He’s rewriting his dialogue. He’s doing his stuff. It’s like, great!”

Gaiman said that the personnel changes hadn’t impacted the structural vision of the adaptation, which he’s always thought would amount to five seasons. “We still have to leave room for things to take as long as they take,” he warned. “It is one of those things where both Bryan and Michael and now Jesse have received the talk: ‘This is your briefing on, loosely, the plot of American Gods season two. You now know this, in case I die before I write it.’ Or, in case you get further along than I do. There were plot things that looked like ‘this is a tiny little thing’ in the book and seem like they’re completely disposable. But, actually, it is a big hook the next novel is designed to fit in to. If you remove it, you lose a bunch of stuff moving forward.”

Revisiting American Gods 18 years later has afforded Gaiman and the show’s creators the opportunity to add new characters like gun god Vulcan. But he also says that not all of the more pointed commentary in the TV show was intentional.

“Just the simple idea of immigration was going to be a crazed, hot topic…we didn’t know that this was going to airing in Trump’s America,” said Gaiman, looking back at the series’ embryonic stages. “Take saying something like, ‘America is a country built from immigrants, many of whom came from here fleeing from other places, and many of whom were brought here against their will in horrible situations.’ I didn’t think that was a contentious statement when I made it in the book. We didn’t think it was, as we’ve been making the show. It’s self-fucking-evident, if you know a little bit about history.”

“We’re not trying to be timely,” Gaiman clarified. “I don’t think you actually could be timely. If you’re timely now, by the time you air, you’re historical.” What the cast and crew of American Gods are aiming for is something metaphorical that captures the feeling of tales passed down across generations. Now that the series’ second season is underway, we can see for ourselves if they’re actually accomplishing that goal.

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